Strength in Service: Navigating Chattanooga’s Veteran Entrepreneurial Ecosystem 

In Chattanooga – this bustling city where entrepreneurs are a driving force – veterans own fewer than 10% of businesses. However, through local university programs and Chattanooga-area company support, veteran entrepreneurs are equipping themselves with more essential tools and better resources to form stronger foundations for their journeys to success.  

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Veteran Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) 

Veterans have a great track record for helping one another – a core value that’s instilled across the armed forces. One that Sandra Cordell, a Navy veteran and former small-business owner herself, lives out every day in her role as Director of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Gary W. Rollins College of Business Veteran Entrepreneurship Program. Since the program’s 2012 inception, Cordell has been collaborating with the local community and university to craft a free program available to veterans across the nation. The primary objective is to ensure their successful transition to entrepreneurship. 

Given her experience, Cordell intimately understands the challenges of starting a company from the ground up after retiring from the service. Cordell’s own entrepreneurial journey mirrors much of what she has encountered among VEP program participants over the years: possessing valuable skills or services, but often lacking the fundamental knowledge of running a business. 

“If we had had a program like VEP back then, then maybe we’d still be in business,” Cordell said.  

The VEP program actively recruits veterans across the country, providing them with invaluable support across three comprehensive phases: concept development and self-study, boot camp and advising, and venture development, spanning five weeks of intensive training followed by 10 months of continuous assistance. 

“We advertise it as 10 months of ongoing support and mentorship as they launch their businesses,” Cordell said. “However, that support never truly stops. We still help people from our first class.” 

The VEP boot camp spans seven days and is filled with a diverse range of classes and workshops led by UTC faculty members, including Frank Butler, Ph.D., Faculty Director and Mentor. As well, participants enjoy immersive field trips introducing them to a vibrant community of local business owners, leaders and fellow veterans.  

“We have a strong passion for helping the veterans. We hear the gaps and try to fill those gaps,” Butler says. “Our goal is to introduce veterans to a wide range of topics that they may not have considered before and help them understand what they don’t know by connecting them to valuable resources.” 

In November 2024, an exciting conference, generously funded by the Frost Family Foundation, is on the horizon for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s VEP. This event is set to bring together a cohort of 150 to 200 VEP graduates in the area, known as VEP 2.0. The VEP is working to rally support from the community in various ways, including seeking financial backing, encouraging participation in an exciting pitch competition, and exploring potential sponsorship opportunities.  

The main goal is to fortify this event with added support, ensuring it becomes an unforgettable experience for VEP graduates where they will have the chance to work on a strategic plan for their business ventures. Additionally, it serves as an excellent platform to showcase the abundant business opportunities Chattanooga has to offer. 

Community Support and Veteran Entrepreneur Events 

Crucial support for the program comes from many Chattanooga Chamber members, including AccelUp, a non-profit wing of Transcard, which champions minority-owned startups, including veterans, who comprise less than 1% of the total local population. Those selected for the year-long program will receive a $15,000 non-dilutive grant. Additionally, they gain access to marketing resources and facilities at Transcard and mentorship and networking opportunities, empowering them to make strategic investments in their businesses. 

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is a top veteran employer, with 20% of its entire workforce comprised of veterans. Their organization places a strong emphasis on recruiting military veterans and their families, recognizing their diverse backgrounds and skills as valuable assets in delivering safe, clean, reliable and affordable energy.  

The Tennessee Small Business Development Center shows its support by offering vital resources such as research materials, sample business plans tailored to specific industries, and comprehensive market research.  

Bunker Labs is a dynamic organization, founded and driven by veterans, with a strong presence in local communities, including vibrant hubs like Chattanooga. Their core mission revolves around providing specialized programs that are fine-tuned to match your industry and current stage of startup or business. They also offer an extensive array of courses in business and entrepreneurship, all designed to provide military veterans and their spouses with the knowledge and resources needed to not just launch, but thrive in their entrepreneurial endeavors.  

Chattanooga’s support for veteran entrepreneurs, driven by programs like the VEP and local organizations, provides a strong foundation for veterans to pursue their entrepreneurial goals with the tools and resources they need. With significant achievements in job creation and economic growth, it’s changing veterans’ lives while also enhancing Chattanooga’s business environment. 

Join the Military Appreciation Salute to Heroes Game and Tailgate on Saturday, Nov. 4 where veterans can connect and local residents can demonstrate their support. 

For more information on the VEP, please visit the UTC National Veteran Entrepreneurship Program page.

For more information about the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, visit the Tennessee Small Business Development Center.

All images courtesy of UTC VEP.

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